Since 1999, only ten different franchises have won NBA titles. Dynasties are sexy, but there is a large segment of NBA fans who love underdogs. While dynasties steer the NBA’s marketing success, there are occasions where collections of scrappy role players provide the perfect support for unheralded and underappreciated All-Stars to go on memorable post season runs, and lift up the Larry O’Brien trophy. This chapter celebrates my favorite collection of said teams from the past 20 years.
2004 Detroit Pistons
Head Coach: Larry Brown
Starters: Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince
Role Players: Darvin Ham, Mike James, Lindsey Hunter, Corliss Williamson, Elden Campbell, Antonio McDyess
One of the best defensive teams of all time. Going into the NBA Finals as underdogs, the Pistons snuffed out the Kobe and Shaq era Lakers last gasp, a vet team featuring the aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Many thought this was a wrap before the series even started. Outside of the late great Ralph Wiley, most media didn’t even think it’d be much of a series. Turns out they were right, but things didn’t go the way they thought it would. The Lakers were a Kobe Bryant desperation heave from getting swept in four games. After beating the back-to-back Eastern champion Nets (remember them?) in the second round, a Tayshaun Prince block on Reggie Miller turned their playoff run into something that felt destined.
Most of the scoring brunt was taken upon by Sheed, Hamilton and Billups, who got buckets when they needed. The ’04 Pistons squeezed the life out of opponents on the defensive end and won by being efficient on the offensive end. They had a long, and physical front line, and Hamilton, Hunter and Billups guarded the perimeter (although 3’s weren’t quite as formidable of a weapon as in today’s NBA). Billups ran the offense with precision, getting the ball to people in the spots they needed to score. Ben Wallace was on his way to being the best defensive player in the league, controlling the block and the boards. Rasheed Wallace was a mismatch for any power forward who dared to check him. Too quick for bigs and too big for smaller forwards; his outside shot forced big men to play him close. Sheed embarrassed a lot of guys at his peak. Their bench players provided big minutes in Ham, Hunter, and Corliss Williamson. Somehow they just got it done. If you looked at the lineups, you wondered how they would get enough points to win, but somehow they always did. Eventually their entire starting lineup would make All-Star teams for the east, and could’ve conceivably been a dynasty had they drafted anyone but Darko Milicic. But for the blue collar fanbase of the Pistons, this was the perfect team, winning through grit and defense. No flash, but all substance.
They put on a defensive clinic in the NBA Finals, employing the strategy to allow Ben Wallace to guard Shaquille O’Neal one on one and harass Kobe Bryant into taking ill advised shots against double and triple teams of defenders. The strategy worked as Kobe declined to pass to Shaquille and with an ailing Gary Payton and Karl Malone, the Lakers did not have a third scorer to counter this strategy.
2008 Boston Celtics
Head Coach: Doc Rivers
Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
Bench: Glen Davis, Scot Pollard, Sam Cassell, Eddie House, Tony Allen, Leon Powe, James Posey, PJ Brown
Some believe this is the first super team to be created in the Free Agency era, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce joining forces, but all three players careers had already plateaued. Neither player were strong enough to carry their teams to the Finals by themselves so sacrificing numbers wasn’t a big issue for anyone. Garnett embraced his role as the defensive captain hitting outside jumpers whenever he was open, but he mostly focused on leading the defense and hitting the boards. Paul Pierce put up his 15-20 shots, while Ray Allen (who may have had the biggest adjustment) only showed glimpses of his Jesus Shuttlesworth persona.
Their supporting cast was as strong as any championship team you’d ever see. James Posey, Leon Powe, P.J. Brown, Kendrick Perkins, and Tony Allen provided the muscle on the defensive end. Rajon Rondo was still a young pup, but proved he was capable of running an offense. Eddie House, Sam Cassell and Brian Scalabrine helped spread the floor with their outside shooting. The Celtics came up in a vacuum between the Pistons descent, and the ascent of Lebron’s dominance. This was a team perfectly constructed for a playoff run with a healthy balance of young legs (Powe, Rondo, House, Kendrick Perkins, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and Tony Allen), veteran leadership (PJ Brown, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, Scot Pollard) and championship experience (Sam Cassell, James Posey)
Doc Rivers had a very strong coaching staff with future Head Coach and defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau.
To get to the chip and hoist that trophy, the C’s had to get through the reigning Detroit Pistons who’d been to four straight Eastern Conference Finals, a talented, but still emerging, Lebron James who’d just been to the Finals the year before, and a Kobe Bryant led Lakers who were on their first of three Finals trips with a Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum front line. Although the Celtics would make it back to the Finals again in 2010, that team didn’t have the depth and balance that the 2008 roster displayed.
2011 Dallas Mavericks
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle (Terry Stotts, Dwane Casey, Darrell Armstrong were assistant coaches on that staff)
Starters: Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic
Role Players: Corey Brewer, Deshawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Brian Cardinal, Ian Mahinmi
The 2010-2011 season created a power vacuum. The initial blowback from the infamous “Decision” created an easy villain in the Lebron James /Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh triumvirate in Miami and some of the usual vitriol reserved for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers was redirected in the direction of south Beach. Unlike the ’08 Celtics who’d acquired an aging Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the twilights of their careers, the Heat assembled a core of rising superstars who still had strong seasons on the horizon (it was basically like the Heat had somehow gotten three top ten picks in the 2003 lottery draft). The Mavericks, however; were third in the western conference behind the Lakers and the Spurs.
In hindsight, perhaps the West was more wide open than it appeared at the time. Although the Lakers had been to three straight NBA finals, and were poised for a three peat, looking back, things seemed to have been fracturing at the time– due to some internal strife and disgruntled big men.
The Dallas Mavericks would not only upend any chance of a media dream matchup of a Kobe and Lebron NBA Finals, but then would vanquish the “mighty” Heat in 6 games to undermine Lebron’s predictions of “not one, not two, not three,” prediction of consecutive titles at the gaudy South Beach press conference upon he and Chris Bosh’s signing with the team.
The Mavericks opened their 2011 playoff campaign with a wildly entertaining series with the Portland Trailblazers( Shout out to the Brandon Roy game 4); beating them in 6 games. Then they ruined the network wet dream of a possible Kobe-Lebron NBA Finals by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in spectacular fashion, as the defending champs folded like lawn furniture after going down 3-0 in the series. Then they embarked on a gentleman’s sweep of the upcoming RUNOKC Thunder, coming back from 15 pts down in games 4 and 5, to snuff out the upstart Thunder’s building momentum. The NBA Finals had more than a few subplots, with Dirk trying to get the playoff monkey off his back, the first super DUPER team put together in the league, and Lebron himself having a playoff monkey of his own to shake.
The Mavericks, historically known for being a team full of finesse players, had the perfect mix of grit, basketball I.Q. and great coaching. Even with the loss of Caron Butler (Tuff Juice) in the regular season, the Mavs had a great defensive presence in Tyson Chandler (the defensive captain), Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Corey Brewer. Jason Kidd had seen better days on the defensive end of the court, but his I.Q. made up for whatever physical limitations he had at this point in his career.
Dirk consistently hit big buckets after big buckets whenever it counted the most, but he had help with perimeter scoring from J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Peja Stojakovic. Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi provided big minutes when called upon as well. This was the ultimate team of role players, where on paper, there wasn’t much flash, but their collective substance led them to a title. A lot of teams had bigger stars, but Dallas had a group of savvy veterans with high basketball I.Q’s who played well within their defined roles. Defensive captain, Tyson Chandler cleaned up any offensive penetration that resulted from perimeter leaks. Marion and Corey Brewer and Stevenson locked down the wings, and Marion and Chandler cleaned up on the boards (not to mention one of the league’s best rebounding guards in history with Jason Kidd). The defining moment of the series came with five minutes left in game 2 of the Finals with the Mavericks down by double digits with 5 minutes left and the Heat up a game already. The Mavs embarked on a huge comeback; punctuated by a Dirk off-hand layup to take the lead with 3.6 seconds left. With 6:20 left in the 4th, the Mavericks were down by 15 and ended the game on a 17-2 run. The Mavericks would go on to win the highly contested series in 6 games. When Lebron detractors argue why he can never be as good as Michael Jordan, they typically point to this NBA Finals as their closing argument.
2019 Toronto Raptors
Head Coach: Nick Nurse
Starters: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Role Players: Fred Van Fleet, Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, Marc Gasol
One of the more interesting playoff runs we’ve seen in a long time. The conventional narrative will forever be that Kawhi Leonard carried the team throughout the post-season (he will forever be remembered for his series ending shot that sent the 76ers packing and made a 7’2 Cameroon giant crying home), but no player has ever carried a team to a title by himself. A different player stepped up every night to contribute on the offensive end to help supplement Leonard’s scoring. One night it would be Gasol, the next night Siakam and Green, Fred Van Fleet (after the birth of his son) chipped in 3 point shots on a nightly basis off the bench, and Kyle Lowry was able to shed the ghosts of playoffs past and get buckets whenever the team needed him to score.
Down the road, I can see history glossing over the fact that this team was loaded with All NBA defenders. The Milwaukee Bucks that season were one of the highest scoring teams that season and Toronto was able to hold them below their scoring average. Against the hobbled the Golden State Warriors, Van Fleet and Lowry were able to hound Steph Curry into some uncharacteristically bad shooting nights. The front line won their nightly matchups against the Warriors in the Finals; trotting out bigs, Siakim, Ibaka, and Gasol (Ibaka and Gasol both former all NBA defenders) with Danny Green and Lowry both known for their defensive prowess on the perimeter.
Kawhi will get the credit for this team winning this title–as he should, he was their closer whenever they needed key basket–but he certainly had a lot of help from the collective.